NBA's Sudden Glut of Retro Logos Explained

Gary Singer, CEO of the marketing neuroscience firm Buyology, theorizes on the NBA's new yen for all things yesteryear.

First it was the Orlando Magic. Then the Utah Jazz and the Golden State Warriors. Now, the Cleveland Cavs have gone and announced they're dusting off an old logo to evoke the "spirit" of the brand's "original expression." (Just different colors.) Suddenly, the NBA is all about nostalgia.

We've come to expect that sort of schmaltzy branding from baseball — America's pastime! Peanuts and Cracker Jacks! Ken Burns! But basketball? The NBA's marketing juggernaut has always relied on its stars of the moment, not its short-pants-and-set-shots past.

The times they are a changin'. Far from being a fluky exercise in how to sell more merch — though there's definitely some of that — the new (as in old) logos are deeply strategic. Here Gary Singer, CEO of the marketing neuroscience firm Buyology, Inc., theorizes on the NBA's new yen for all things yesteryear. A bunch of teams have come out with what they bill as retro logos. Why are they doing this?

Gary Singer: The simple answer is to return to simpler times. We live in troubled times. Our heroes are becoming increasingly tainted with scandal. What [the teams are] doing at an unconscious level and maybe even at conscious level is saying to sports fans, "Let's return to times and values when heroes can be heroes." Whether we remember it faultily or not, when you think back on past heroes, you don't think about the scandals, you think about the greatness.

Is it really that simple or is there a financial incentive here?

There's very much a financial incentive. The financial incentive is to freshen your logo to enhance merchandise sales. But the actual design choice is a bigger strategy. The retro look is not necessarily going to sell better than non-retro logo wear. The retro idea is to try to elevate relationships people have with the team.

What kind of research is out there on retro branding? Is it something people actually respond to?

At Buyology, we have 10 relationship drivers, which are things we advise brands and teams and celebrities to contemplate, if they're trying to enhance their relationship with their target audience. One of those 10 is storytelling. Brands that have strong connections to fans are really good at telling stories. The evidence is that when you evoke pleasant memories what you're essentially doing is you're giving the father the opportunity to tell the son and the mother the opportunity to tell the daughter stories about days of old. It's entirely possible that as you move to these retro logos, the mom or dad might whip out of their closet an old jersey with the logo on it. It gives you the opportunity to extend those memories. We have evidence about how powerful that is in terms of enhancing your fan base.

Is it possible that all these throwback logos can hurt teams and make it harder for them to keep their fans?

One risk is it comes off as old and old-fashioned and not retro and positive memories. There are examples of people trying to be retro and all they've been is yucky. Another risk is that if it proliferates too much, it's not going to be distinctive, it's going to feel like everyone's just following the leader.

Any guesses as to why this is happening all at once? It seems orchestrated.

I suspect that there's some mimicking going on here — 'Let's do it because they did it."

Does retro branding only work in sports? Like, should the banks try it out to gain the favor of their customers?

There is going to be a mega-trend of returning to historic values, but City Corp going back to its old logo is probably not going to happen. In those industries, technology plays a significant role in the brand. And you could imply that by looking backwards you're less sophisticated and less technologically advanced. It's hard for me to think of Merrill Lynch or B of A or City Corp doing that. But it wouldn't hurt for some of them to evoke the trust and personal attention and the integrity that are associated with the past.

So is the NBA out front on this mega-trend?

In a way. Sports are about heroes more than other industries. The [NBA] is starting to recognize that they're in the hero business, and if they don't invest in it, they're going to be pretty much left out in the cold.

[Images via Yahoo, except Cavaliers: via]